5

Lesson

TECHNIQUES FOR REVISION

A few effective approaches to revising prose are so uncomplicated and have been around for so long that they are easy to overlook.

[1] Read your work out loud often. Almost always, just reading it aloud will reveal certain necessary revisions—the need for a word here, better phrasing there.

[2] Listen to someone else read your work out loud. As you listen try as hard as you can to pretend that you did not write the story. What comes across well? What doesn't? What suddenly sounds clumsy, unintentionally funny, or inappropriately vague?

[3] As you revise pieces of prose, always look for unintended shifts of verb tense. For example, you may start to write a story in the present tense but then, because telling stories in the past tense comes so naturally to all of us, you may shift back to the past tense without meaning to do so.

[4] Some errors in punctuation, spelling, grammar, and vocabulary haunt us. We commit the same ones over and over again, often even when we understand why the error is an error; habit can overwhelm knowledge. So keep a list of the errors you make repeatedly; make sure you know why they are errors; and then expect to find them in your drafts.

Needless to say, the last thing you should do is allow MS-Word to find and correct mechanical errors for you! The above techniques are elementary; most of you no doubt picked them up in introductory composition courses. For those of you who would like to get nutty with revision—and nutty is a good thing in this case—below are some advanced approaches.

Often it's fine for us to be guided into our revision and editing by our own instincts and experience, our own modus operandi. However, sometimes being forced or nudged to revise or edit in specific ways can help the drafts at hand and also sharpen our instincts and broaden experience.

[1] Experiment with adjectives: remove all the adjectives (or adverbs or both) from the text. Or, if you tend not to use them enough, try using more, or try using adjectives in pairs.

[2] Cut the text in half (condense to half as many lines) while trying to maintain the original intensity.

[3] Write a paragraph description of what you intended to say in the text without the work in front of you. Compare the description to the original. How successful were you?

[4] If a text seems good but somehow too safe or careful or predictable or "well-mannered" to you, revise it thoroughly, feverishly, using free association, tapping into a more surrealistic area of your imagination. Think of the draft as domesticated, then return it to the wild.

[5] Write a dialogue between two characters already "in" one of your narratives, without using names or identifying tags and even, if you like, without thinking of the current plot organization as it stands.

[6] If you have a fairly long dialogue in your text, tell yourself you're going to make it as short as you can while still having it contribute to the narrative in the way you think it should. Make it a challenge: How little dialogue can I get away with?

[7] Rewrite a scene from an existing narrative that's in the first person point of view and make it second person. Then make it third person. Or turn third person into first person, and so on.

[8] Basic polishing: Look for places where you've begun a parallel structure but not finished. For instance, you might have a series such as "Mike wanted to go fishing, hunting, and take a hike" and simply need to replace "take a hike" with "hiking." Many modal verbs ("could see") can be revised into simpler, swifter forms ("saw"). Often we use two adjectives when one will do—and do better: "burly" instead of "big and burly," for instance. Look for lapses in pronoun agreement and reference and in subject/verb agreement. Use descriptive dialogue tags sparingly (she hissed; he roared; he said sneeringly); edit out as many of these extras as you can, and let the words of the dialogue themselves suggest how someone speaks.

Revision is the lifeblood of good writing—it is, bar none, the most important part of the writing process. Different writers revise their work in different ways. I tend to revise (and re-revise, and re-re-revise, and so on) as I'm drafting my writing, composing little more than a few paragraphs in one sitting. Sometimes I only compose a few sentences. Then, when I'm finished with a full draft of a story or a novel, I put it aside for anywhere from a few days to a few months before returning to it and revising it again ... and again ... and again ... until I get to a point where I am sufficiently bored with the work. It is this threshhold of boredom that tells me when a work is done (although not perfect—I never think anything I write is perfect; nobody's writing is perfect: subjectivity prohibits it). Other writers, on the contrary, compose rather long narratives in short, wild, unrefined bursts and save revision solely for completed rough drafts. These are merely two extremes. Whatever the case, you want to find a method of revision that works best for you.

(NOTE: Most of this lesson was appropriated from Metro: Journeys in Writing Creatively.)

Fiction #4

The simplest stories are fairy tales and myths in which a central character—who is on some sort of quest or journey—is continually on stage and secondary characters only appear to assist or thwart him or her. This is called a "skeleton" story—you can see its bones. There are no subtleties, emotions are unanalyzed, and the narrative proceeds in a linear way. In the skeleton the world and its people are viewed in morally black-and-white terms. The temptation to stray will be almost irresistable, but if you do, you will drag your reader into thickets of subplots and gangs of minor characters.

Write a linear story in which a strong main character is aon a quest for something important and specific (e.g., a shelter for the baby, medicine for a sick brother, or the key to the storehouse where a tyrant has locked away all the grain from a starving populace). The object is a given—don't try to explain its importance. The main character starts acting immediately. He or she then meets a (specific) obstacle; finally he or she triumphs over the obstacle by means of a magic or supernatural element that comes from the outside (e.g., Dorothy's red shoes in The Wizard of Oz). You may introduce minor characters but the narrative should never abandon your main character. This story should be told through action and dialogue. Limit: 550 words.

Featured Book

Flannery O'Connor. A Good Man Is Hard to Find. 1955.

REVIEW: "With a keen eye for the dark side of human nature, an amazing ear for dialogue, and a necessary sense of irony, Flannery O'Conner exposes the underside of life in the rural south of the United States. One of the powers in her writing lies in her ability to make the vulnerability of one into that of many; another is her mastery of shifting 'control' from character to character, making the outcome uncertain. Sexual and racial attitudes, poverty and riches, adolescence, old age, and being thirty-four, which 'wasn't any age at all' are only some of the issues touched on in this collection. When Ruby has to walk up the 'steeple steps ... [that] ... reared up' as she climbed to her fourth floor apartment, we feel her pain as she 'gripped the banister rail fiercely and heaved herself up another step ...' A 1972 National Book Award winner, O'Connor reminds us that none of the roles in our lives is stagnant and that wearing blinders takes away more than just a view. Through her stories we see that what we blind ourselves to is bound to appear again and again."—500 Great Books by Women

Assignments

Fiction #4: Submit via Pilot. DUE DATE & TIME: Friday, Jun. 13, 11 a.m.

Discussion: Go to the online magazine The Cafe Irreal, which mainly publishes very short stories and flash fiction. Read the current issue or some of the fiction in the archives. Choose one story and write a creative response to it. How your response is creative is up to you. DUE DATE & TIME: Friday, Jun. 13, 11 a.m.

Architectures of Possibility: Read THIRTEEN: Word Worlds, FOURTEEN: Endings and FIFTEEN: Materiality & Immateriality One. Choose TWO of the eleven exercises located on pgs. 165-66 and complete them. Submit via Pilot on the same document. DUE DATE & TIME: Friday, Jun. 13, 11 a.m.

Journal Entries: [7] Write a eulogy for a car, a pet, an old pair of jeans, or a pair of dress shoes. [8] Write a first-person meditation in the persona of a popular character in a TV show or movie. Do not state the name of this character in the entry itself; let the details and context of your meditation inform readers who he or she is.